A look at the Puget Sound Regional Council’s snapshot of economic activity on the Tacoma Tideflats shows a mixed bag of news for business boosters trying to use it as an example of job creation and industrial activity born from straightforward land-use policies.
Certainly the 2013 report, the most recent study available and the one used by city planners in their review of matters, states that $34.5 billion in international trade and $3 billion in domestic activity pass through the 5,160 acres of Tacoma’s working waterfront a year. Some 9,250 workers receive their direct paychecks from businesses on the waterfront. But here’s the problem.
That number is actually falling.
It has been dropping for the last decade, which saw 2,653 workers leaving waterfront payrolls since the 1990s. The overall value of goods flowing through shipping terminals and cargo trucking company warehouses is going up, while those operations use fewer workers.
So the Port of Tacoma is failing its mission of creating local jobs. Certainly, the drop of manufacturing jobs is not unique to Tacoma. The entire nation simply doesn’t make stuff as much as it used to, particularly when less expensive options can be found on the world market. That’s not likely to change, yet there is little talk about reinventing the Tideflats so that it actually generates local jobs, not just international trade values that flow into and then quickly out of our community.
While the Tideflats make up 16 percent of the city’s land area, it represents 9.5 percent of the city’s job base. The Tideflat has just a quarter of the economic activity per acre than the average for all manufacturing and industrial hubs in the region. What is also interesting is that the average parcel size is just five acres, two acres smaller than the regional average for industrial areas and has about eight percent of its land vacant and developable. Land is available but the parcels are small, making every inch count or requiring the cobbling of several parcels together for larger projects to boost economic activity – you know, like allowing 30 acres of land be used for a liquefied natural gas facility that will have about the same payroll numbers of a downtown coffee shop.
It has been argued that since the Tideflats area is recognized as one of the largest center of manufacturing and industrial uses, residential developments should be discouraged. That makes sense. Residential encroachment into heavy industrial zones raises a host of environmental safety and compatibility issues as does the reverse, industrial encroachment into established residential areas. Both exist on the Tideflats. In an effort to guard against this, housing options within the Tideflats’ economic center have dropped by 22 units, about half of its residential stock during the last decade. But what is interesting is that the actual population of people living within the industrial zone has increase by 698 residents. That growth came courtesy of the decision to site the Northwest Detention Center in the area, adding 1,300 people to the neighborhood. Residential encroachment into industrial areas apparently doesn’t count if orange jumpsuits and guards are part of the equation.
The Tideflats needs a subarea plan, a fact the City Council and the Port of Tacoma Commission recognize, to sort out the mix-match of decisions and visions for the shipping hub. But it also needs some interim regulations to save itself from making future bad decisions that could further cost jobs and encourage encroachment as previous decision have.